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Artifacts: On Revising Older Stories

By Laura Rock Gaughan

Faced with the happy prospect of preparing Motherish, my short story collection and first book, for publication, I panicked. Not only did the task demand a decisiveness I lack, but I wanted to be moving on: generating new work, finishing the fragments of projects that needed (and still need) my attention. Instead, endless revision loomed. Attached to an email from my editor were my manuscript pages, annotated. Pages that had already consumed years in the drafting and polishing. Some of the thirteen stories that comprise Motherish had appeared in journals—shouldn’t that mean they were complete? Well, no. My editor’s notes included the phrase “not yet fully realized”—gently evoking a future in which the narrative shines brighter if only the writer has another go at it. She questioned the sad turn of one story, wondering if it could end on its brief high note (spoiler: no, it couldn’t). For others, she suggested amping up voice or imagery. She invited me to look anew at my stories. The possibilities seemed infinite.

Here, I should stress that my editor is a marvel of insight and wisdom. How gratifying it is when a skilled professional devotes attention to your work.

The passage of time is the real issue, I think, and it’s multi-faceted. First, every writer hopes to get better as they go along; ambitions and standards change. Writing that once seemed satisfactory falls short. Meanwhile, our culture, the context in which writing is produced, never stops moving, with implications for how stories are received. For those of us producing work at a more deliberate pace (slow writers unite!) this poses a dilemma: to refresh or leave be. Finally, age matters. The stories we write in our fifties are not the stories of our twenties. Different material attracts us, and we react to previously treated material in new ways. When I began writing fiction my children were young. My brain was gripped by the dramas of pregnancy and childbirth, the myriad ways we go wrong as parents. I was stewing about power, control, joy, nurturing. While those topics still fascinate me, I wouldn’t write about them the same way today.

Most of my Motherish stories were five to ten years old when I approached them for the last time. There would be no more chances for alteration after the book went to print. Just typing that sentence makes me sweat. I wanted to respond to the editorial notes, but how much revision of the past was necessary? I couldn’t decide.

Into my paralysis stepped a good friend, the author of seven books, with veteran advice. Do not do a major rewrite of your stories, he said. Consider each one a personal artifact of who you were, your worldview, at the time you wrote it. That’s what they are: artifacts.

This calmed me a bit. It gave me permission to duck a wholesale revision. I could approach the work with a measure of detachment, based on my current understanding of craft. Some stories were flawed but lovable artifacts to be preserved: fine. Others—who the hell wrote this crap?—were ripe for revamping. I still had to put in the effort, but that effort felt purposeful, yielding changes that can be categorized broadly as mechanics, setting, and heart.

Fixing Tics

The simplest job, the most satisfying, was hunting down writerly tics that should have been obvious all along. Perhaps I had repeated the names of characters in dialogue to an annoying degree. Maybe certain words were pressed into service too often—unintended repetition. As I reviewed the collection, my tics announced themselves. The solution was to eradicate them with the zeal of a fumigator.

When stories are stacked into a collection, recurring patterns of thought are hard to miss. I saw that I had too many one-word titles, and too many with animals in them. I changed one title from “Leap” to “Leaping Clear,” which better suited the protagonist’s sense of liberation at the end of her life.  Changing titles (especially after multiple rejections from journals) can confer a psychological boost: the story is reborn. Other textual changes flow naturally from re-titling.

Updating vs. Time-Stamping

Who was it who said that every plot question could be resolved by handing the character a smartphone? A traveler gets lost—google-map the journey. Strangers arrive at a dinner party—pull up their criminal history before the soup course ends. A soldier deployed overseas misses her family—watch them Skype. The reasons for characters to suffer through moments of doubt, ignorance, and loneliness have all but disappeared. Or maybe the terms of human suffering have evolved into finer, faster-breaking gradations of uncertainty in ever more virtual realms. Not all searches yield results. I came up empty googling variations of the paraphrased line on plot. Can we crowd-source it, Literary Twitter?

My older stories pre-dated crowd-sourcing, texting, Google, Twitter, and, indeed, the Internet. This wasn’t a concern for stories set in earlier eras. A girl goes to the racetrack with her grandparents in the 1970s. A woman wonders if she has married the wrong man as they struggle to make a living during the Depression. There’s no confusion about the when of those narratives.

For less defined settings, tech tools act as a time-stamp, as well as an aid to characterization. Zadie Smith begins her novel, On Beauty, with an email (a wink at the letter that opens Howards End). At the time the book was released, the reader knew: this is contemporary. Now, we might pause on the first page. Email, okay.

The stay-at-home mom in my contemporary story, “Good-Enough Mothers,” sends faxes, while reflecting on her obsolete skills—and the other mothers blogging about their kids. The characters in an earlier draft of a story called “Mother Makeover” pull out mirrored compacts and apply lipstick as they wait to audition for a reality TV show—but no one carries those compacts anymore. It’s as old as checking your watch. The update was to have the women look at themselves using their phone-cameras.

Other stories required a clearer time-stamp for reasons unrelated to technology. “Maquila Bird” follows a Mexican factory worker who undergoes pregnancy testing mandated by her employer. At the time I drafted it, maquiladoras were in the news. Human Rights Watch had documented cases of women being harassed on the job for becoming pregnant. Now, the concept of maquiladoras is less widely known. To orient the reader, I decided to insert a reference to the early 90s—characters speculating about the potential impact of a NAFTA, still in the future, on their wages.

A More Careful Language

I don’t know if it’s a sign of growing older or the dire politics we’re living through, but I’ve been feeling acutely the desire to take more care with words, to interrogate their connotations before allowing them space in my writing.

Illegal immigrant. Sold down the river. Rule of thumb. These are just a few of the commonplace phrases I’ve heard my whole life that I no longer use. They express violence, even if the person using the words doesn’t intend violence. Their history is inescapable. What does it say about a writer’s sensibility if their words deny or erase people?

No one is born all-knowing; we don’t have immediate access to every etymology. We learn as we live. But when we do find out the brutal biography of language, we should alter the way we use it.

As a writer, my natural inclination—and yours, I suspect—is to claim for myself all the words. Every expletive, every insult, fair game. Just another tool in the toolbox, especially in dialogue, where hateful speech establishes character and reflects our world. That’s still my going-in position, but I’m trying to be more thoughtful with these decisions. I’m striving for greater control, both restraint and artfulness.

Reading my older stories, I notice that, at times, I’ve opted for facile associations or glib wordplay without doing the requisite thinking and feeling. One should not, for instance, invoke the figure of Rosa Parks lightly—out of context, without reference to her struggle or the movement she embodied—which I’m embarrassed to say I once did, before revising.

Profound culture shifts, such as the testimonies of #MeToo, changed the way I evaluated my older stories. In one, a man on the verge of retirement is obsessed with a young woman who works in the same building. He’s attracted to her without admitting it to himself. Another has a boss inappropriately touching his intern. I think these stories can still be told, but they’ll be interpreted through lenses of gender inequality and abuse of power, as well as literary criteria. In revision, the options emerged: anchor the narrative to an earlier time; dial back or excise problematic scenes that weren’t central to the conflict; or cut the story.

This type of revision is not a question of what’s in vogue or allowable; it is not self-censorship. What it amounts to is that I no longer agree with myself, the younger self that produced these pages. They don’t represent my worldview.

 

In the end, I removed two stories from the collection, added a new one, and tinkered with the rest. I was grateful to have the opportunity to give the stories their final shape. Did I make the right choices? Were the revisions successful? I can’t say. Maybe in ten years I’ll be dissatisfied with the book. And then, I’ll tell myself, these are artifacts.


LAURA ROCK GAUGHAN‘s first book, a short fiction collection called Motherish, was published in September 2018 by Turnstone Press. Her fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada, Ireland, and the United States. Born in California and raised in western New York, she lives in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada.